As in other parts of the world, media practitioners, especially independent media organizations in Sub-Saharan Africa, have been adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, losing revenues and struggling to remain relevant as misinformation led to a decline in trust. Journalists had to find ways not just to communicate the right information to their audiences in response to the misinformation in circulation, but also to stay informed about the subjects they were covering.
It is with this context in mind that Meedan and Article 19 came together to support independent media and journalists working in four African countries to respond to health misinformation through essential, timely support and materials. The program, which ran from February 2021 to January 2022, included a series of health misinformation trainings, as well as the establishment of a collaborative response network of regional fact-checking organizations and newsrooms with the overall goal of boosting the production and sharing of high-quality, reliable information during the COVID-19 misinformation crisis.
Article 19 + Meedan training in February 2021
To set this up, we started with a collaborative and experimental approach, using a variety of platforms and formats that the participants had not previously tried. This, in my opinion, greatly contributed to the success of the program, allowing for some great content to be produced from Meedan’s Health Desk, for example, which was then translated into local languages for audio, video and text in a variety of contexts, and creating pathways for future collaboration between journalists and newsrooms in the region.
Overall, this program was built around the need to adapt interventions to local contexts while maintaining a global focus. The aim was for participants to focus on their own local contexts and how the pandemic was progressing in their countries, and Meedan’s role was to provide them with a higher level view based on the best available scientific information through Health Desk. Navigating this showed us that it was possible to combine these two perspectives - bringing in public health expertise and amplifying essential voices while making sure that context is respected.
We worked with six newsrooms and news organizations spread across the continent, including the Africa Women Journalism Project, which has fellows in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, the Center for Innovation and Technology (CITE) located in Zimbabwe, Debunk Media in Kenya, Defy Hate Now in South Sudan, FactSpace West Africa in Ghana, and Pamoja FM in Kenya. Three of the organizations - CITE, Defy Hate Now and GhanaFact - either operate as fact-checking organizations or have dedicated fact-checking teams, while AWJP, Debunk Media and Pamoja FM have a more traditional newsroom structure.
Some of the stories produced by the participating newsrooms
The overall goals of the project were to work with the participants to develop and deliver quality health fact-checking content to their audiences, to experiment with new platforms and types of content, to amplify credible and relatable local sources of information, and to connect audiences with relevant experts, facilitating meaningful conversations and a sharing of knowledge in impactful ways.
We started off by holding co-design conversations with newsroom leaders to develop workshops based on actual need and editorial priorities from participating organization. We also surveyed participants on their skills and experience, as well as desired workshop outcomes to figure out how we could best work together to achieve the goals we had in mind.
In total, we had four workshops: Key methods and best practices for Health Fact-Checking, Creating a Standard of Care for Health Misinformation, Fact-checking and Mental Health, and Making Facts Go Viral. The first three were conducted by Meedan, while the fourth, on designing content to ensure maximum reach, was jointly organized by Meedan and the Africa Women Journalism Project.
The Meedan team facilitated individual newsroom sessions on editorial milestones for each group to pursue during the training project, and offered regular access to timely, expert-vetted health content on Health Desk.
Overall, the participants indicated that they hoped to gain a better understanding of health fact-checking in order to effectively respond to the health-related misinformation that their audiences had experienced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. They had also stated that they wanted to set up and strengthen their fact-checking teams, as well as to update their internal processes, editorial standards and workflows to include best practices for responding to health misinformation.
We also maintained a clear focus on what the desired goals were, adapting them as and when needed. We started this off by co-designing clear deliverables driven largely by the needs of the participants, and these were formatted as editorial milestones that they would work on through this workshop series in order to ensure that the project deliverables would not be seen as ‘external’ to the work that they were already doing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This worked to also inform the session design and selection of focus areas for the program. As a result, the newsrooms were free to either continue what they were doing already or to start new initiatives with this program’s support in order to meet their and their audiences’ needs.
Going forward, the participating organisations have expressed interest in collaborating with each other in the future, and this program has contributed a great deal to the start and continuation of these conversations, and we look forward to collaborating with them in future.
- Online conversations are heavily influenced by news coverage, like the 2022 Supreme Court decision on abortion. The relationship is less clear between big breaking news and specific increases in online misinformation.
- The tweets analyzed were a random sample qualitatively coded as “misinformation” or “not misinformation” by two qualitative coders trained in public health and internet studies.
- This method used Twitter’s historical search API
- The peak was a significant outlier compared to days before it using Grubbs' test for outliers for Chemical Abortion (p<0.2 for the decision; p<0.003 for the leak) and Herbal Abortion (p<0.001 for the decision and leak).
- All our searches were case insensitive and could match substrings; so, “revers” matches “reverse”, “reversal”, etc.